Tuesday, December 31, 2013

DVD Review: 'Sanitarium'

Article first published as DVD Review: 'Sanitarium' on Blogcritics.

The horror anthology can work wonders by keeping the tales short and sweet with a quick pace. The only one in recent memory that pulls this off is the now-Halloween classic Trick ‘r Treat. Full of gallows humor and gory shenanigans, including the weaving of each tale together—not to mention a “host” who doesn’t speak in the form of little trick-or-treater Sam—and writer-director Michael Dougherty has conjured a little film that could. A sequel has even been announced for 2015. Another anthology has really hit its stride in the form of a sequel, seeing V/H/S/2 is better the original. Unfortunately, in the case of the more Twilight Zone-esque Sanitarium, not even the presence of Malcolm McDowell can keep things together with only three tales to slog through.

SanitariumCoverThe first story, “Figuratively Speaking,” is the best, where we find the sad tale of famed model-maker Gustav (John Glover) being taking advantage of by his agent Sam (Robert Englund). He has one human friend in the form of Mateo (Walter Perez), but spends most of his time talking to his models, who leads him to unspeakable acts. In “Monsters Are Real,” we find poor Steven (David Mazouz) stuck in a horrible home life with an abusive father (Chris Mulkey), his concerned teacher Ms. Lorne (Lacey Chabert), and a vengeful hallucinations that may be more real than his father would like. Finally, we come to “Up to the Last Man” featuring Lou Diamond Phillips as a ticking time-bomb professor, who becomes obsessed with the Mayan apocalypse and builds a bunker in the backyard, draining his family’s income and his own sanity at the same time.

Don’t expect much out of seeing the name Robert Englund (Freddy Krueger himself) in the credits. Not to give much away, he’s the first person to die in the nearly two-hour runtime. The first story is the best, which is never a good sign when there’s still so much more to come. Glover plays the crazed artist very well and gives Gustav a friendly psycho vibe where you aren’t sure whether to be scared of him or not. As for tale two, Mazouz at least doesn’t get stuck playing the obligatory bullied schoolboy, instead co-writer-director Bryan Ortiz at least gives him real life fears to worry about.

The biggest problem comes with the last tale, where the film should be finally gaining momentum. Phillips’ tale gets stuck in a repetitive streak where the same ground gets covered over and over and you figure everything out as it happens instead of being treated to any kind of big reveal. The trio of directors—Ortiz, Bryan Ramirez, and Kerry Valderamma—at least keep things from looking like a direct-to-video film, while offering up no bonus features whatsoever. And the Twilight Zone vibe may surprise most viewers expecting a gory good time; these are all slow-burning descents into madness. If you’re looking for something more restrained however, there are far worse ways you could kick the new year off. A rental wouldn’t be a waste of money in the least, just check your expectations accordingly.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Movie Review: 'The Wolf of Wall Street'

**** 1/2 out of 5
180 minutes
Rated R for sequences of strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language throughout, and for some violence
Paramount Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: 'The Wolf of Wall Street' on Blogcritics.

Right now director David O. Russell is about as close as anyone’s come to making a Martin Scorsese film with American Hustle. But when Scorsese himself directs a new film, there’s nothing else like it in theaters. And just when we thought Scorsese had been playing it a little safe after winning Best Director and Picture among many other things for The Departed (see Shutter Island and to a lesser extent Hugo), he’s back where he belongs in a world of seedy loveable criminals with the big screen biopic of Jordan Belfort’s The Wolf of Wall Street.

WolfOfWallStreetPic2This is the over-the-top true story of Belfort’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) rise to glory in the corporate banking world and, of course, on Wall Street. His first big day on the job happens to be on October 19, 1987 (known as Black Monday), but all this is after he gets more advice than he could have asked for from Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey), who tells him success lies in cocaine, masturbation, and hookers. Something Belfort eventually takes completely to heart.

Moving on to penny stock trading, he decides to take his friends and form his own business. Eventually making millions, developing one hell of a drug habit, and leaving his wife Teresa (Cristin Milioti) for Naomi (Margot Robbie). Living the dream of excess is the name of the game, until FBI agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) comes knocking. From here, Belfort begins a downhill slide into ruin, while getting taken down by the one person he should be able to trust the most, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill).

Everyone performs at the top of their game, including Scorsese. No one makes a movie like he can, even if Russell seems willing to give him a run for his money. Originally running four hours long, Scorsese has trimmed the film down to 180 minutes that fly by faster than most 90 minute comedies could ever dream. DiCaprio is amazing as always, keeping the faintest hint of humanity floating beneath the devilish surface. And anyone who complained about Jonah Hill being nominated for Moneyball can eat their words with how fantastic he is here. Even Margot Robbie as Naomi, manages to steal scenes away from DiCaprio proving that being good looking doesn’t mean you can’t act. But if all she could do was look good with her clothes off, what would she be doing starring in a Scorsese film?

WolfOfWallStreetPic1Things really fizzle in the final few scenes and should have ended about five minutes sooner — blame could probably rest on screenwriter Terence Winter — but it also could be Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker working in overdrive to get the film edited for the Christmas Day release. And on that topic, there are always odd Christmas release choices —typically of the horror variety — but this certainly fits in as well. It was reported that on top of the bloated runtime, the MPAA was going to slap the film with an NC17 rating. Considering the amount of nudity, sex, and drug use still in the film, I can’t even imagine how much more there could have been before. A few scenes start to feel pornographic but are played more for laughs which is probably how they kept within an R-rating.

A particular scene near the end has DiCaprio and Hill hopped up on expired Quaaludes is one of the funniest and intense scenes of the year; a true showstopper. In fact, most of The Wolf of Wall Street plays this way with one scene after the other seeming to want to top the previous. When Scorsese releases a film, of course it’s going to be one of the best of the year, and hopefully, it will see its share of nominations come Oscar time. Is it the best film of the year however? I’m still tied up between American Hustle and 12 Years a Slave. But believe me, The Wolf of Wall Street is certainly a doozy and it’s nice to see that Scorsese still has the magic behind the camera.

Photos courtesy Paramount Pictures

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Movie Review: 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty'

*** 1/2 out of 5
114 minutes
Rated PG for some crude comments, language and action violence
20th Century Fox

Article first published as Movie Review: 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)' on Blogcritics.

Say what you want about Ben Stiller’s choice of starring roles, the man can direct the hell out of a movie. While his spot in the director’s chair may be few and far between — see Reality Bites, The Cable Guy, Zoolander, and Tropic Thunder — it should come as no surprise to see a high level of craftsmanship brought to his latest endeavor: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Remaking the 1947 Danny Kaye film — itself based on James Thurber’s 1939 short story — Stiller seems to have the same problem as his protagonist of having big dreams without the ambition. I blame the film’s shortcomings on the fact that Stiller didn’t write the film —Steve Conrad did— but that didn’t stop him from making The Cable Guy nothing short of a cult classic. (That one wasn’t written by him either.)

WalterMittyPic1The real life of Walter Mitty (Stiller) involves zoning out and lots of daydreaming. The first time we see this happen he misses his train to the city as he hears a fire truck nearby and leaps from the train station through the air, hurtling through a building window and saves a dog from a fire. More of these outrageous sequences are to come.

Walter works at Life magazine which is coming to an end. Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott) has been brought in to downsize the print department as the magazine heads online. Walter has received a package from photojounalist Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) including a wallet as a gift and film negatives featuring an elusive number 25 that has gone missing but Sean says will be top consideration for the last magazine cover. Now, Walter uses the help of unrequited office love interest Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig) to track Sean down and find the missing negative.

Turning the film into a travelogue, Stiller takes Walter to Greenland where his childhood love of skateboarding almost gets him killed in a volcano eruption, but not after a trip on a helicopter with a drunken pilot, and fighting a shark. A set piece featuring a street fight between Walter and Ted rips off Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, but has the kind of energy the film starts lacking once Walter heads off on his mission to find Sean.

I won’t even get started on the technological inaccuracies running rampant. Something most viewers won’t even notice anyway. Stiller and Wiig make an appealing romantic couple and Scott is hilarious as the office jerk who cares more about how he’s going to explain things to the executives than the staff. Unfortunately, the film has bigger intentions than Stiller knows what to do with, but as one of few family-oriented films being released this holiday season, at least it’s a better than usual option. And seeing how The Secret Life of Walter Mitty features an oceanic shark fight, it still has that going for it.

Photos courtesy 20th Century Fox

Blu-ray Review: 'The Family'

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: 'The Family' on Blogcritics.

As a big fan of director Luc Besson, it makes it really hard to watch him fail. The Fifth Element was the first film of his I saw in theaters and I remember walking out thinking it was either one of the best action films my 17-year-old brain had ever seen, or one of the worst movies I’d ever seen period. Needless to say, with the film playing at the dollar theater, I returned back to see it again and I knew this was a director I needed to seek out at the video store. After finding copies of Léon: The Professional and La Femme Nikita, I was hooked.

TheFamilyCoverUnfortunately, we all know how hit or miss Besson can be. In fact, as far as directing goes, he’s never really made as great a film as the first three. Most of his association with good action films are in the writing/producing category—see Taken and the Transporter/Taxi series. This isn’t to say he doesn’t still have some bite left in him. But when it comes to his latest offbeat comedy The Family, there’s definitely more bark than bite. In fact, it isn’t even until the last 30 minutes that the film even resembles a Besson production. Armed with Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer as a mob family in hiding, you’d think Besson would have more up his sleeve. Nevertheless, The Family comes home in a Blu-ray/DVD/Digital HD UltraViolet combo pack to fizzle in your living room.

De Niro stars as family patriarch Giovanni Manzoni, arriving with his dysfunctional family in tow to Normandy, under the alias Fred Blake. Wife Maggie (Pfeiffer) loves an episode of arson whenever she can get hold of a lighter; daughter Belle (Dianna Agron) finds herself falling in love with her tutor when she’s not knocking the local teen boys’ teeth out with a tennis racket; and son Warren (John D’Leo) makes his rounds doing recon to find out how to keep their heads above water at their new high school. Meanwhile, back in New York, Don Luchese (Stan Carp) is stuck in Attica, ordering Rocco (Jon Freda) to track down Manzoni. FBI handler Robert Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones) is on the case to keep the Blake family safe, but eventually, Blake’s cows come to roost in a fight for the family’s life.

There are some funny things sprinkled throughout the overlong 111-minute runtime. Had Besson spent less time following the Blakes in their every day shenanigans and stuck to the mob stuff, he could have had more to chew on. Being based on the novel Malavita (Badfellas) by Tonino Benacquista, Besson is limited with adapting the novel, instead of how much more exciting this could have been had Besson come up with something else using the family motif. The score by Evgueni and Sacha Galperine is catchy, but the music is wackier than what’s on screen. It’s like someone grafted an Italian Seinfeld score into a drama. Something a colleague of mine hated in the first RED film, and now I understand his issue.

The FamilyIt should come as no surprise that whenever De Niro and Jones are onscreen, the two play off each other fantastically with De Niro’s smarmy charm and Jones’ deadpan seriousness. A scene in a library where the two watch Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas should have been uproarious, instead it just shows the kind of fun itching under the surface begging to be unleashed. As for the rest of the cast, Pfeiffer is no stranger to this kind of material and fits in nicely, and the two kids perform better than you’d think. D’Leo would make a great teenage mobster in a movie of his own and even Agron is better here than she ever was on Glee. Unfortunately, the film moves at a snail’s pace with Besson lingering on situations instead of trying to pump up the comedy beats, letting the air out of every scene until the inevitable gunfight finally ensues.

Thankfully, Besson obviously knows how to shoot a good-looking film and Fox’s Blu-ray presentation rarely falters. Presented on a 50GB disc in a 2.39:1 aspect ratio, The Family certainly looks the part of a new production. Aliasing, banding, noise, and crush are never a burden. Fine detail is impeccable in every shot. Whether it’s wrinkles or facial hair on De Niro’s weathered face, Pfeiffer’s crows feet, or any pleated suit, it all comes through with striking detail. If it weren’t for the ultra orange glow cast issued by cinematographer Thierry Arbogast, I would give the video a perfect score. I know, this is the fault of the original source, but skin tones never look realistic and it becomes a distraction. As for the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, the action, surround effects, and music all sound amazing. Unfortunately, a lot of the time, dialogue sounds way too deep and bass-heavy which becomes as bothersome as the super-tanned day glow. English is the only available language, with subtitles in English and Spanish.

The special features are very scarce with a 10-minute “Making The Family” consisting of interviews and on set footage featuring stars De Niro, Pfeiffer, D’Leo, and Agron. It’s your standard behind the scenes affair, but it is rather amusing to hear D’Leo and Agron talk about him mistaking her for his makeup artist when they first meet. Not sure what kind of rock D’Leo is living under to not know, or at least recognize, Agron. Next up is a nearly two-minute exercise in “The Many Meanings of Fuck,” where we hear the word used over and over from random film clips trying to show how much of a connoisseur De Niro’s poppa Blake is at using it every chance he gets. Finally, the theatrical trailer and sneak peaks round things out for Runner Runner, The Counselor, Graceland Season 1, and The Americans Season 1.

TheFamilyPic2Anyone looking to catch up on Besson’s filmography is better off watching almost any of his previous directing efforts. I suppose you could say The Family is a slow burn to the big finale, but it’s not worth the wait. The film was not a box office success, so home video is where Besson is probably hoping to find a second life for his latest endeavor. Featuring fantastic video and almost stellar audio, I suppose there are far worse films you could be spending your money on. But considering how much talent was involved and how little pay off comes, The Family is a cautionary rental best suited for indiscriminate fans.

Blu-ray Review: Mario Bava's 'The Whip and the Body'

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Mario Bava's 'The Whip and the Body' on Blogcritics.

If there’s one thing Blu-ray distributor Kino Lorber continues to knock out of the park, it’s their Mario Bava Collection. Having reviewed every single release, they have yet to sneak in a clunker. With so many titles still not released yet, considering The Whip and the Body is their ninth, I hope to see many more in the future. Full of Bava’s mesmerizing color schemes and gothic production design, The Whip and the Body is another one of his erotic pieces, maybe even more so than Five Dolls for an August Moon. Bare flesh isn’t everything when it comes to eroticism, and this time, Bava let’s Christopher Lee loose with the titular object.

WhipBodyCoverLee plays Kurt Menliff, who has just returned to the family hillside castle. Kurt is there to give his blessing to the marriage of his former lover Nevenka (Daliah Lavi) to his younger brother Christian (Tony Kendall). Kurt and Nevenka still have sadomasochistic feelings for each other — which is where the whip comes in — and Kurt learns that Christian is in love with Katia (Ida Galli). Meanwhile, the housekeeper Giorgia (Harriet Medin) is still grieving the death of her daughter, keeping the dagger that killed her inside a literal glass case of emotion. She wishes the dagger would plunge itself into the neck of whomever killed her daughter. Soon enough Kurt is murdered with the dagger, laid to rest, and soon may or may not be haunting the castle, whip in hand.

All the gothic trappings are included in Bava’s erotic thriller. Unfortunately, the film isn’t as thrilling as it could be, or as erotic as it should. Anyone who watches Bava films knows he likes to keep things more restrained, but it might have perked up better had he subdued to the prerequisite T&A of this type of film. It also doesn’t help the mood that the film was shot in English and then later dubbed for release. Missing is Lee’s iconic voice and some of the other voiceovers are pretty over-the-top, deflating the drama. But at least the production design, camera work, color use, and music are all up to par with what we expect from any Bava film.

As with the rest of the Bava Collection, Kino Lorber has remastered the film from an original 35mm print and looks quite healthy for a 50-year-old film. Presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, Bava fills the screen with all things gothic. Thankfully, the disc keeps things looking as good as they can with inky blacks, swirling grain, and devoid of any aliasing or banding. Some source inherited soft shots rear their heads, but is no fault of the new HD transfer. However, there are also plenty of white and black specks, stray hairs, scratches, dirt, and a few vertical lines to keep things from looking even better. Things only a Criterion restoration could remove, but are sort of welcome when watching a film of this kind. It’s nice to see some prints remind us that we’re watching a film.

WhipBodyPic1As for the audio, Italian, English, and French uncompressed 2.0 Linear PCM tracks deliver the atmospheric mood, even while being confined to mono. I watched the film in English and it sounds way better than you’d think. Although, the dubbed dialogue comes across as silly at times, with the film being shot in English, this track makes the most sense to watch. Subtitles are included of course, available in English only.

As for special features, all we get is another boring track by Bava historian Tim Lucas (author of Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark), ported over from the DVD release. Sounding like he’s reading a script, and quite proud of himself, Kino should look into finding someone else to record new tracks for future Bava Collection releases. A trailer for The Whip and the Body is also included, as well as for the Bava Collection’s Black Sunday, A Bay of Blood, Baron Blood, and Lisa and the Devil.

I’m really enjoying these Kino releases of the Mario Bava Collection and honestly wouldn’t mind if they released every film on his resume. His style was ahead of its time when these were new releases, and his influence still feels fresh in some of today’s films. This summer’s You’re Next pays great homage to Bava’s A Bay of Blood which was also a precursor to the original Friday the 13th. With surprisingly spry video and nicely done audio, don’t let the lack of features deter you if interested. The Whip and the Body is another fine addition to the increasing Blu-ray releases of Mario Bava.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Movie Review: 'Inside Llewyn Davis'

**** 1/2 out of 5
105 minutes
Rated R for language including some sexual references
CBS Films

Article first published as Movie Review: 'Inside Llewyn Davis' on Blogcritics.

Some people have weird expectations when it comes to the films of Joel and Ethan Coen. While remaining quirky, they’re always highly enjoyable. Even in some of their more throw-away projects, entertainment abounds: The Ladykillers, Intolerable Cruelty, and Burn After Reading instantly come to mind here. In the case of their latest, Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coens are at it again, making a film unlike any they’ve made before while maintaining the top-notch quality we’ve come to expect. Packed with hilarious dialogue, an amazing cast, spectacular cinematography, and one of the best soundtracks of the year, Inside Llewyn Davis is exactly the kind of Oscar-fare you’d expect to see.

InsideLlewynDavisInside Llewyn Davis refers to a solo album recorded by Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac). Spending his nights performing in Greenwich Village’s Gaslight Café, one night he’s attacked by a man in a suit setting off a string of events. Llewyn spends the night at Mitch Gorfein’s apartment (Ethan Phillips) and accidentally lets the cat out with the apartment door locking behind him. Now, Davis embarks on a musical odyssey with his new feline companion.

Davis heads out to crash with his friends Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan), where Jean informs Llewyn she’s pregnant with a baby that could be either Llewyn’s or Jim’s, and just in case the baby could be Llewyn’s, she wants an abortion. Broke and homeless, Davis sets out for Chicago with Roland Turner (John Goodman) and his driver Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund) after meeting Al Cody (Adam Driver) during a recording session at Columbia Records to seek out producer Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) and find better representation and become a star.

InsideLlewynDavis2Inside Llewyn Davis may be the Coen Brothers most meandering film yet, jumping from one situation to another. They’ve even admitted that the cat was thrown in after they realized there was no plot whatsoever. But some films don’t necessarily need a plot. The characters and situations drive it. It’s not like we haven’t seen a slice-of-life film before. Burn After Reading literally had no plot as even in the final scene the whole film is hilariously shrugged off by one of the most minor characters. What the Coen Brothers are up to this time is simply shining a light on the New York music scene of the ’60s. Don’t be surprised if a nod to Bob Dylan shows up.

The soundtrack is the real star of the show here, with everyone required to sing the songs live. Quite a feat considering a lot of the performances are single takes. I have coined a term I use for films like these as “coincidental musicals” where the film isn’t a musical, but is packed with tons of songs. A couple of other films falling into this category would be That Thing You Do!, Walk Hard, Walk the Line, and the best of them: Once. T-Bone Burnett and Marcus Mumford (yes, of Mumford & Sons) produced the music and is one for the books. The cast sing their hearts out, particularly Oscar Isaac, but that should come as no surprise considering he’s the star of the film. The Coen Brothers haven’t released a film since 2010’s True Grit, and Inside Llewyn Davis is a welcome addition to their ever expanding filmography and one of the year’s best films.

Photos courtesy CBS Films

Blu-ray Review: 'Man of Tai Chi'

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: 'Man of Tai Chi' on Blogcritics.

Because I review Blu-ray discs, I feel like I have watched way more martial arts/kung fu movies than usual. I love watching them, but getting my hands on them was a bigger hassle before Blu-ray as they were usually relegated to DVD or from overseas online sites. Now that Well Go USA has been releasing at least a few every month, I can get my fix for the genre, even with varying degrees of quality.

ManOfTaiChiCoverThis month sees the release of Keanu Reeves’ directing debut, Man of Tai Chi, and while it may be hitting Blu-ray via Starz/Anchor Bay, the itch has been scratched. It’s just too bad that the enjoyment factor only lasts through the first hour. Reeves has joined forces with the legendary Yuen Wo Ping — best known to American audiences for his work on The Matrix films and Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill — to choreograph some visually stunning fight sequences, but unfortunately, the finale falls flat on its face.

Man of Tai Chi refers to Tiger Hu Chen starring essentially as himself as the character Tiger Chen. He spends his days working as a courier, making time to train under the guidance of Master Yang (Hai Yu) at a dilapidating temple. Donaka Mark (Reeves) recruits Tiger for a “security” job, only to find his interview consisting of beating a man to a bloody pulp. Tiger learns that Yang’s temple is in threat of being torn down by developers and joins Donaka’s underground fight club to get the money to bring the temple up to code and spread some money-love to his parents. But soon enough, Tiger finds himself in the fight of his life as Donaka’s motives get darker and darker.

As for the presentation, Man of Tai Chi fights its way onto Blu-ray on a 25GB disc in its original 2.40:1 aspect ratio. With the film being shot digitally, and slapped onto a disc with limited disc space, at least there were no anomalies to report. There are lots of skyline transitions from daylight to nighttime and back again, but even banding never came through. There was also no noise, crush, nada. Every strand of hair, pore on actors’ faces, costume stitching, and swirling dust clouds are all delivered with impeccable detail. There is a huge amount of depth to the picture, featuring the 3D pop we expect from a Blu-ray presentation.

The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track delivers every punch, kick, and breaking limb with a great level of LFE. Surrounds seemed mostly used to enhance the music, no matter how over-the-top Chan Kwong-wing’s score gets. Dialogue is always crystal clear, no matter how fractured Tiger’s American accent gets. The subtitles are where things get tricky. While there are additional language tracks in Mandarin and Cantonese, make sure you turn on the English subtitles because Keanu filmed in multiple languages and if the English subtitles aren’t turned on you’ll miss dialogue as it’s not translated otherwise. There are also subtitles in Spanish and English for the deaf and hearing impaired.

The special features are incredibly limited, but considering how boring the end of the film is, at least the features aren’t dragged out. “The Making of Man of Tai Chi” runs almost 8 minutes and basically features Reeves sitting in a director’s chair talking about the plot, its origins, and the excitement of working with Yuen Wo Ping. And for anyone who can’t find Reeves boring enough, does he have an audio commentary for you! Tiger Chen joins him for one of the most abysmal commentary tracks you’re likely to ever suffer through.

ManOfTaiChiReeves, Tiger, and Wo Ping definitely delivered some incredible fight scenes during the first hour of the film. Unfortunately, once writer Michael G. Cooney’s screenplay starts to get deeper into plot, the film’s own chi gets off balance and it never recovers. Working with cinematographer Elliot Davis, Reeves employs his new filming techniques, but squanders them with the standard action quick-cut slicing and dicing editing by Derek Hui. But you would think Reeves would have learned more than this after starring in the Matrix films.

Towards the end, there’s one of the worst CGI car crashes I’ve seen in a movie in years. Matt Reeves certainly did way better in the assuredly smaller budgeted Let Me In. As it stands, the film does have some cheese factor that carries the proceedings on for a bit, but anyone who’s ever seen a kung fu movie will find absolutely no surprises. This is kung fu filmmaking by-the-numbers, and for a while, it certainly works. But once Donaka becomes a bigger piece of the story and Reeves gives himself more screen time, his own hamminess is just the tip of the iceberg that sinks the whole thing.

The back of the Blu-ray case features a blurb from Movies.com’s Jeff Bayer proclaiming this to be “The best martial arts movie since The Raid.” But Man of Tai Chi doesn’t even come close to the action heights set by Gareth Evans’ brilliant battle royale. For a debut film, this is definitely one of the worst freshman outings I’ve seen, but if anyone is thinking of comparing this to The Raid, then audiences should just pick up a copy of that instead. The sequel will be premiering at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and is at the top of my must see list. Those who love action movies and haven’t yet seen The Raid should buy it immediately. As for Man of Tai Chi, if you have a passing interest, it’s a fine blind rental at your nearest Redbox.

Movie Review: 'American Hustle'

***** out of 5
138 minutes
Rated R for pervasive language, some sexual content and brief violence
Columbia Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: 'American Hustle' on Blogcritics.

For anyone waiting for a predecessor to Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, David O. Russell’s American Hustle should fit the bill. With an opening disclaimer that “Some of this actually happened,” it tells you what kind of film you’re walking into. Let’s get one thing straight about Russell’s films though: they may feature some of the best dramatic acting of the year, but are always, essentially, comedies. Just goes to show you how fine of a line it is between drama and comedy. Drama can always be heightened to bring out the comedy, and that’s one thing Russell knows how to do better than most.

AmericanHustleSet in 1978, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is a brilliant conman who owns a string of dry cleaning stores and sells glass and art. But all that is a front to what Irving is even better at: being a grifter. After meeting Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) at a pool party, the two begin falling in love and eventually, Irving asks Sydney to be his partner in crime, with Sydney posing as Lady Edith Greensly of London royalty.

Soon enough, FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) makes a bust and forces them into a world of bigger cons involving the dangerous world of fake sheiks, mobsters, and politicians. DiMaso is hellbent on bringing down corrupt politicians, beginning with New Jersey Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). That is if Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), Irving’s wife, can manage to keep her mouth shut to keep everyone from sleeping with the fishes. Irving calls her “the Picasso of passive-aggressive karate.”

Russell may have found his dream cast, with an ensemble that’s essentially a greatest hits of his most recent films. Cooper and Lawrence are back after Silver Linings Playbook, for which Lawrence took home an Oscar this year and will likely be nominated again next year. Bale and Adams return to Russell as lovers after always being at each other’s throats in The Fighter. Another surprise guest returns from a previous outing, but I won’t ruin it.

AmericanHustle2Bale as Irving is like nothing he’s ever played before. From the first scene he’s found with his shirt unbuttoned, gut hanging out, while trying to fix the world’s worst comb over/toupée this side of Donald Trump. The whole cast is a comedic powder keg, giving their all in a world of weirdos, each one more desperate than the last. Russell and co-writer Eric Warren Singer keep things moving at breakneck speed, with hilarious dialogue and surprising twists and turns. A few of my colleagues don’t see what all the fuss is about, but American Hustle is one of the few true masterpieces of 2013 and deserves all the accolades that come with it.

Photos courtesy Columbia Pictures

Friday, December 20, 2013

Movie Review: 'Saving Mr. Banks'

 **** out of 5
125 minutes
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements including some unsettling images
Walt Disney Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: 'Saving Mr. Banks' on Blogcritics.

If there’s one thing director John Lee Hancock gets right in Saving Mr. Banks—unlike his previous directing venture, The Blind Side—is presenting us with a lovably bitchy character. With Sandra Bullock having won an undeserving Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Leigh Anne Tuohy, it means we better see Emma Thompson at least nominated for playing Pamela “P.L.” Travers (author of Mary Poppins), the focal point of Saving Mr. Banks. Same goes for Tom Hanks who embodies the spirit—if not quite the exact look—of Walt Disney. He does far more in his performance than even Sir Anthony Hopkins did as Alfred Hitchcock last year.

SavingMrBanksSaving Mr. Banks is about the making of Mary Poppins, make no mistake about that, but we’re also treated to an inside glimpse of Travers’ inspirations. Backstory and flashbacks make up quite a large portion of the story as we see her childhood in Queensland, Australia, dealing with her doting, alcoholic father Travers Robert Goff (Colin Farrell) and her slowly breaking-down mother Pamela (Ruth Wilson). The film alternates between her childhood and 1961 as Pamela travels to Los Angeles to meet with Walt who has been seeking the movie rights to her beloved Mary Poppins for 20 years.

Pamela is convinced he will ruin her books and continues to hold the rights hostage as she meets daily with screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford), and songwriting brothers Richard M. (Jason Schwartzman) and Robert B. Sherman (B.J. Novak). Meanwhile, Walt bides his time finding out what makes Pamela tick, while she rants and raves about everything from Mr. Banks’ mustache to “Mary Poppins doesn’t sing!” But Walt will have her sign off the film rights if it’s the last thing he does. Even if it means trying to persuade her with a trip to his “money-printing machine,” aka the happiest place on Earth: Disneyland—complete with a guided tour by Walt himself.

SavingMrBanks2Screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith do a wonderful job squeezing in nods to the Mary Poppins film, maintaining the mystery behind Pamela’s reasoning for most of the runtime. As I said, if either Thompson or Hanks aren’t nominated, it would be a travesty. This is also the best film of director Hancock’s career. Whether it’s Best Picture-worthy is not up to me, but I honestly don’t think so. If it’s nominated than good on it; however, I have seen better this year. But the performances definitely deserve their due. However, Saving Mr. Banks is also not the family film of the year as it may look on the surface. This is a biopic through and through. Children will undoubtedly be bored by most of the proceedings, but for older audiences, it is exactly the kind of warm and fuzzy film we expect around the holidays. And we couldn’t ask for anything more, especially from the House of Mouse.

Photos courtesy Walt Disney Pictures

Movie Review: 'Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues'

***** out of 5
119 minutes
Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual content, drug use, language and comic violence
Paramount Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: 'Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues' on Blogcritics.

Ladies and gentlemen, can I please have your attention. I’ve just been handed an urgent and horrifying news story. I need all of you, to stop what you’re doing and listen. The most important event in comedy sequel history has happened. Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues delivers the goods. After nine years and as many rumors as any other film Adam McKay and company are back and as spectacularly hilarious as ever. I remember the first time I saw Anchorman and knew it would change the face of comedy, as we know it. From there it was a snowball effect as Apatow Productions began its dominance and it’s been a pleasure to watch.
Anchorman2Pic1Catching up with Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) and Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) in New York City, head anchor Mack Tannen (Harrison Ford) is about to pass the torch, but instead of both becoming prime time anchors, Mack hands things over to Veronica and fires Ron. Veronica is beside herself over the fact that Ron doesn’t support her decision and he gives her an ultimatum. Six months later, Ron has moved on to hosting the dolphin show back in San Diego at Sea World and is sought out to join GNN (Global News Network) — the first 24 hour news source — in New York. Ron has to get the team back together and we get to see where Champ Kind (David Koechner), Brian Fontana (Paul Rudd), and Brick Tamland (Steve Carell) are now.

With Ron back in New York, he thinks he can win back Veronica and be there for their seven-year-old son Walter (Judah Nelson). At the station, Ron meets his arch nemesis Jack Lime (James Marsden) and deals with racial diversity in the form of his new boss and lover, Linda Jackson (Meagan Good). Ron is determined to beat Jack’s ratings even with Jack in the prime time slot while Ron and his team get sentenced to the graveyard shift. But leave it to Ron to figure out that they should tell the people what they want to hear instead of what they need to hear. High-speed car chases and on-set smoke cracking are just the tip of the iceberg, and when the finale finally arrives, let’s just say things escalate quickly.

Surprises, one-liners, a shark fight, and more cameos than a Muppets movie culminate with a manic level of insanity that cranks the comedy up to 11. I laughed till I cried and couldn’t be happier with Anchorman 2. I was worried that maybe they took so long with the sequel because they didn’t have anything worthwhile up their sleeve. But have no worries, the magic is back and this is every bit as quotable as the original Anchorman. Brick even gets a love interest in Chani (Kristen Wiig) who is just as clueless and feeble-minded and just as hilarious.

There’s far more going on here than just getting old friends back together to slap something up on screen (I’m looking at you Grown Ups 2), and McKay and Ferrell never lose sight of their satire taking on media saturation with brilliant audacity. Hopefully this will be the success it deserves to be and maybe even get Paramount Pictures to move forward with the rumored Zoolander sequel we fans want as well. For now, at least Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues proves itself to be the year’s funniest movie and exceeds expectations on every level.

Photos courtesy Paramount Pictures

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Blu-ray Review: Disney's 'The Lone Ranger'

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Disney's 'The Lone Ranger' on Blogcritics.

A lot of films crash and burn at the box office and maybe none more so publicly than this year’s The Lone Ranger. As the budget soared, and word of mouth began to turn poisonous, it was only a matter of time before audiences could decide if the latest collaboration between director Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp would be one of the biggest box office flops of all time. Time will tell whether it was truly disastrous or not, but considering the final stated budget of $215 million and its final worldwide tally of $260 million, it definitely didn’t do well.

LoneRangerCoverSometimes films can find a second life on home video and I’m hoping that’s exactly what happens here. The Lone Ranger is by no means a bad film; in fact the final train chase is one of the best action pieces of the year. However, it is definitely not one of the year’s best films, despite what Quentin Tarantino thinks. His own Django Unchained was a far better western that The Lone Ranger could ever be, but at least there’s a sense of fun to Verbinski’s film. Even if stateside audiences didn’t feel like sitting through a bloated 149 minute film in theaters, the film is admittedly even better to watch at home on a couch where you can pause to take a bathroom break if needed. Here’s a link to my full theatrical review.

As for how it transfers to Blu-ray, I always say, “Another day, another Disney transfer.” Make no bones about it, The Lone Ranger slings its way into your living room in a 2.40:1 aspect ratio on a 50GB disc with stunning results. Every dirt particle, piece of costume, makeup effect, skin pore, and hair on every head and horse can be seen in this finely resolved picture. I swear I spotted a second of aliasing along the side of a train, but that would be nitpicking of the highest order. Blacks are perfect and inky with no crush. There’s also no other compression artifacts resulting in no banding or noise. I remember the film looking very washed out in theaters, but here cinematographer Bojan Bazelli’s choices look far superior here.

Perfect is the order of the day and the same can be said for 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. Every gunshot, arrow sling, splintering wood, and explosion comes alive with one of the most aggressively alive surround tracks of the year. A deep and rumbling LFE makes everything more alive and pits you right in the middle of the action. At one point, a gunshot coming from the rear left speaker even managed to scare the crap out of my wife. Some fun directional effects keep the soundstage alive making it seem like you’re right out in the old Wild Wild West alongside Tonto (Depp) and Reid (Armie Hammer). Additional audio tracks include French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 and subtitles are available in English, French, and Spanish.

The special features department is a little lacking for a film as involved as this one. There are some huge action sequences — including the final 10 minute train chase showstopper — and it would have been nice to see. What we do get is still plenty fun: first up is “Armie’s Western Road Trip” where Hammer takes us through his adventures in the Wild West for 14 minutes. Hammer travels to Rio Puerco and Santa Fe, New Mexico; Moab and Monument Valley, Utah’s Navajo nation; Canyon de Chelly in Chinle, Arizona; and Creede, Colorado; we even get to see both the Comanche and Navajo Nations welcoming the crew to film on their territories.

LoneRangerPic“Becoming a Cowboy” is an eight-minute segment showcasing Hammer and costars William Fichtner and Ruth Wilson learning how to ride horses, shoot guns, and wrangle chairs. “Riding the Rails of The Lone Ranger” runs 10 minutes and shows how Verbinski built real trains to film with and how they had to prop them on truck beds to drive them through scenic roadways — because train tracks don’t run through the best routes anymore. Verbinski states he wanted to film one of the best train sequences of all time and he definitely succeeded.

One “Deleted Scene” consists of CGI and storyboarding for “Locust Storm/Great Warriors” and the locust sequence could have looked pretty fantastic in a completed form, but we can all agree the film is already too long to begin with so anything excised is no big loss. And finally, a three-minute “Bloopers” segment shows everyone clowning around and flubbing lines as we’ve come accustomed to. Ironically, the finished film is funnier than anything here. The main menu consists of skippable trailers for the upcoming theatrical releases: Saving Mr. Banks and Muppets Most Wanted.

The Lone Ranger will always go down as more of an oddity on everyone’s resume but is definitely worth checking out from the comfort of your own home. With one of the best audio/video displays of 2013, whether you love the film or not, at least it’ll give your home theater a workout and is definitely something to show off on your setup. While the film isn’t a masterpiece by any means, it’s still a lot of fun, even if way too long. But should find a better fit for audiences now that they don’t have to pay out the butt for admission and can take the film in at your stride. The Lone Ranger comes highly recommended for anyone looking to check it out.

DVD Review: 'Caesar & Otto's Deadly Christmas'

Article first published as DVD Review: 'Caesar & Otto's Deadly Christmas' on Blogcritics.

This holiday season I’ve had the opportunity to review two horror-themed Christmas movies making their home video debut. One was the cult classic Silent Night, Bloody Night, which deserved remastering and an official DVD release after years in the public domain. The other, not so much. According to the trailers section of the menu, Caesar & Otto’s Deadly Xmas is part of a trilogy (while the Wikipedia page claims there are five features) that no one has heard of. Featuring two of the most obnoxious protagonists I’ve seen in a while, I have no idea how these two characters have run amok in two previous installments. But if the quality inherent to Deadly Xmas is of any indication, I’ll never bother with them again.

DeadlyXmasCoverIt’s Christmas time for our moronic duo Caesar (Dave Campfield) and his half-brother Otto (Paul Chomicki). Desperate for money, the two wind up auditioning for Santa positions — even though Caesar is scared of Santa after his awful Grandpa (Lloyd Kaufman) tells him that Santa only wants to cut his penis off with a chainsaw — while another fellow Santa (Deron Miller) decides he has a vendetta against the two. Subplots involve Otto’s pining for a long lost love Allison (Summer Ferguson) and Caesar taking on directorial duties of a Christmas horror movie. Meanwhile, the bodies of Caesar’s Thanksgiving dinner guest list start dropping like flies including his agent Donna (Linnea Quigley) and Drew (Avi K. Garg) who’s just lost both arms to the axe-wielding killer after he just had one replaced.

As far as special features go, this disc is packed! Not that the features are any more fun than the movie’s crew think it is. A 6-minute “Behind the Scenes” shows the cast and crew having a jolly good time in front of and behind the camera. They talk about how much fun they’re having making the movie while not having a budget. No budget filmmaking is something I’m very familiar with, but Deadly Xmas is never as much fun as they think it is. You could call this Bob & Tom: The Movie as they seem to think everything they do is the funniest thing ever and laugh hysterically at their own incompetence.

A 5-minute collection of “Alternate Scenes” is every bit as bad as the final product and three(!) audio commentaries are included: the first featuring director Campfield; the second consisting of Campfield, Chomicki, Miller, and more; while the third includes producers Joe Randazzo and some special guests. A couple of additional short films are included: Piggyzilla runs just over one minute long and is about a guinea pig mutated with dinosaur DNA running the streets eating the cast. A 52-second “Makings Of” is included. Otto’s First Job is about Otto falling asleep at a security gig and The Perfect Candidate is a surprisingly more entertaining 14-minute piece starring Joe Estevez (Martin Sheen’s younger brother). Audio commentaries feature one from the director and one with the producer.

Featuring Lloyd Kaufman, creator of Troma Films, could give you an idea of what to expect, but even his own productions feature far more entertaining films that this. Being released on DVD from Wild Eye Releasing (who also released the far superior and genuinely funny Mold!), I expected some no/low budget absurdity, but Caesar & Otto’s Deadly Xmas only amounts to a deadly amount of time wasted on a horridly unfunny Christmas horror film that I will probably wind up being one of few who will ever see it. While it has raised some small acclaim around the independent film festival circuit, apparently anyone who praised it has never seen a good no-budget film. Deadly Xmas isn’t Sundance, or even Slamdance worthy. If there was a NoDance Film Festival, that’s where it would play best.

Monday, December 16, 2013

DVD Review: 'Mischief Night'

Article first published as DVD Review: 'Mischief Night' on Blogcritics.

Every once in a while you run into a film that has an amazing cold opening, only to have the rest of the film fall to pieces. Ghost Ship is the first film that springs to mind, featuring an amazing sequence of a horrible accident slicing an entire ship worth of people to pieces. Other films with amazing openings are the four Scream films, but at least the rest of those films’ runtimes are up to par with their openings. Now, we come to Mischief Night (on DVD December 17) where once again, a fun opening could have been a great short film, only to find itself attached to a mediocre one post-title card. Let’s just say there’s one home invasion film to see this year, and it’s You’re Next.

MischiefNightCoverOn the night of October 30th, Will (Charlie O’Connell) and Kim (Erica Leerhsen) are enjoying a romantic night of adultery when it’s rudely interrupted by every slasher cliché in the book. After the opening 10 minutes we get to the film’s main plot involving Emily (Noell Coet), who suffers from psychosomatic blindness after a car accident when she was nine that killed her mother. Now, she’s just moved into a new home and doesn’t know her way around the house, but that doesn’t stop her father David (Daniel Hugh Kelly) from leaving her alone on Mischief Night to go on a date. Soon enough, a masked and hooded stalker begins terrorizing Emily, and not even the help of her boyfriend Jimmy (Ian Bamberg) or aunt Lauren (Stephanie Erb) can help her.

Mischief Night is another well-received film festival find making its way to home video with a current 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Don’t let the five reviews fool you; this is not a triumphant genre film by any means. For about an hour, Coet makes for a likeable lead, and the house seems to pose just as big a threat as the lurking killer; however, the script takes a turn for the worst a la The Purge and it starts to get dumber with each passing minute.

Anyone can guess when poor Emily’s sight will return, and sometimes the killer takes on a goofy prance as he stalks Emily through the house. One huge inconsistency is that in an early scene, Emily knows Jimmy is climbing in through her bedroom window because she says she can smell him, yet she walks right by the hooded stalker multiple times never noticing he’s there. This must be the best smelling killer ever. Things like this happen at a rapid pace throughout the final 30 minutes.

On the plus side, director/co-writer Richard Schenkman makes the most of his budget, and the slick production, Anastasia Devana’s score, and Richard J. Vialet’s cinematography do heighten the proceedings a little, but even at a scant 86 minutes, the opening sequence is the best part of it all. The only special feature is an 11-minute “Behind the Scenes” featuring interviews with the cast and crew, and lots of spoilers. The main menu is pre-empted with trailers for Lovely Molly, Do Not Disturb, All Hallow’s Eve, and Sanitarium. In the end, Mischief Night is just another run-of-the-mill direct-to-video horror release you’ll soon find in the bargain bin.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Movie Review: 'The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug'

**** 1/5 out of 5
161 minutes
Rated PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images
Warner Bros.

Article first published as Movie Review: 'The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug' on Blogcritics.

If there’s one thing you should never show the press days before a film’s release date, it’s a work print. Work prints haven’t been finalized for a theatrical release, and usually feature a temporary music track and unfinished visual effects. While I have no way of knowing if my screening for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug was in fact a work print, it sure had that look. (Update: this was in fact not a work print, but a combination of theater/studio error.) Tinny dialogue, questionable character composites, sketchy 3D, muted colors, and no high frame rate? This didn’t even look as good as it does in the trailers or TV spots.

So, how does the film hold up compared to the hype? I’ll say the same thing for Smaug that I did when the credits rolled for Catching Fire: “This is the film the first one should have been.”

In part two of Peter Jackson’s magnum opus adaptation, we meet up with Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) in a bar where Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) offers to help Thorin reclaim his land. You’ll remember from An Unexpected Journey that Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) claimed the Lonely Mountain of Erebor from the dwarfs. Jumping right back into the action, we find Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and the remaining company of dwarves — Dwalin (Graham McTavish), Balin (Ken Stott), Kíli (Aidan Turner), Fíli (Dean O’Gorman), Dori (Mark Hadlow), Nori (Jed Brophy), Ori (Adam Brown), Óin (John Callen), Glóin (Peter Hambleton), Bifur (William Kircher), Bofur (James Nesbitt), and Bombur (Mikael Persbrandt) — who are still being chased by the Orcs lead by Azog (Manu Bennett) and his son Bolg (Lawrence Makoare), as they enlist the aid of Elves Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly). Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) also gets caught up in their quest to kill Smaug and reclaim both the Lonely Mountain and Lake-town.


While it may sound like The Desolation of Smaug has way more going on than An Unexpected Journey, that very well may be. But the plot feels a lot tighter than in the first film. I say that’s because the Journey was all setup for the next two sections. As for Smaug, Peter Jackson — along with his co-writers: wife Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro — has streamlined the plot and has a tighter runtime making the pace fly by.

And what can be said about Smaug himself aside from being one of the most spectacular characters in years. Menacing and brilliant, he is the scary dragon we expected to see. And while all of the Lord of the Rings films end on cliffhangers (aside from Return of the King of course), this is the biggest one yet. I was absolutely not ready for this to be over. Even running 156 minutes, I was more than willing to sit through the remaining possible three-hour conclusion that will be There and Back Again. To put it simply, The Desolation of Smaug is one of the year’s biggest and best films, finally delivering everything we expect from another addition to the J.R.R. Tolkien film legacy.

Photos courtesy Warner Bros.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Blu-ray Review: 'Saving General Yang'

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: 'Saving General Yang' on Blogcritics.

The name Ronny Yu may not mean much to American audiences. In Hong Kong, he has been directing movies since 1979 but never garnered as much attention as he did after the success of The Bride with White Hair in 1993. Armed with an imaginative martial arts take on the Liang Yusheng novel Baifa Monü Zhuan, Yu flipped the tale into an action-packed Romeo and Juliet.

SavingGeneralYangCoverStateside, Yu would come to mainstream attention after breathing new life into the pint-sized killer doll franchise with Bride of Chucky and delivered genre fans the long-delayed Freddy vs. Jason. As far as his action roots go, he’s probably best known for the Jet Li’s Fearless. Proving he still has some fight left in him—he’s only directed eight films in 20 years—now Yu brings the story of the legendary Generals of the Yang Family as the band of brothers set out to rescue their father in Saving General Yang, now available on Blu-ray.

The Yang family is led by General Yang Linggong (Adam Cheng) with a ruling thumb over his seven sons: Yan Ping (Ekin Cheng), Erlang (Yu Bo), Sanlang (Vic Chou), Silang (Li Chen), Wulang (Raymond Lam), Yanzhou (Wu Chun), and Yansi (Fu Xinbo). Yanzhou and Yansi have just competed in a fight tournament, winding up in the death of Lord Pan Renmei’s (Bryan Leung) son. Pan wants payback for his son’s death so after General Yang is captured in an ambush by the Khitan, he offers no assistance. Now, the seven sons are sent out to rescue him while the dastardly Yelü Yuan (Shao Bing) continues to attack the Song Empire who has vowed revenge against Yang over the death of his own father

There are subplots involving Yanzhou’s love for Princess Chai (Ady An), his childhood sweetheart, and General Yang’s wife She Taijun (Xu Fan), worrying about the prophecy that seven sons will leave and only six will return. But we’ve come for the action and boy, does Yu deliver the goods. Filled with breathtaking hand-to-hand combat sequences, a blazing aerial assault, an attack on Wolf Mountain, a canyon assault, and a one-on-one bow and arrow showdown, we definitely get more than we could hope for. Add in the brotherhood of the Yang sons and their loyalty to save their father and possibly the dynasty and you’ve got the emotional oomph to make every battle seem more brutal than the last.

To make things even better, Well Go USA has blasted Saving General Yang onto a spacious 50GB disc in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Well Go USA has a long standing of excellence in their releases and this one never faults. I couldn’t find anything to nitpick in the entire 102 minute runtime. Facial features, special effects, clothing, set design, everything is brought to life with impeccable detail. No banding, aliasing, crush, or even shimmer rears its head.

GeneralYangPic1The same goes for the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks. Presented in both Mandarin and English (2.0 stereo is also available in both languages), the soundfield is always active. From whistling arrows and whirling wind to every sword clang, not even the music drowns out the dialogue, with every sound effect coming at you from every direction. A nice level of LFE keeps the action rumbling along as well. Subtitles are available in English, Spanish, and French.

In the special features department, they cover just about every aspect you can think of. While the “Making Of” only runs eight minutes, things are more than made up for with the “Interviews with Director and Cast” supplement. Running a whopping combined 94 minutes, co-writer/director Ronny Yu and all of the Yangs are included as they go over the production design, themes, and action pieces. There are also previews for upcoming Well Go USA titles: The Wrath of Vajra, On the Job, and Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon.

If you’re looking for some intense, brutal, and practical action—meaning Ronny Yu doesn’t rely on high-flying computer enhanced spectacles—then Saving General Yang is exactly what you’re looking for. Featuring great performances, the aforementioned action sequences (brought to life by a faultless transfer with a fantastic audio track), Saving General Yang is more than a great addition to the onslaught of action films coming out of the Well Go USA pipeline. It would also make a great holiday gift for the action lover in the house and I have no qualms about deeming this release highly recommended.

Blu-ray Review: 'The Rooftop'

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: 'The Rooftop' on Blogcritics.

If you think the musical and kung fu genres would make a good pairing, well you’d be wrong. While I’ve always considered them to be genre brethren, I think Jay Chou may have been the wrong person to develop the first of its kind. Just check out the opening scene of Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle to see who probably should have been responsible for this kind of film. In the end, Jay Chou only proves that he does have the requisite expertise behind the camera, but he sure lets the shenanigans of The Rooftop get too out of control by the end of its runtime. However, anyone looking for the next Baz Luhrman-wannabe make sure you grab your copy of The Rooftop on Blu-ray December 10.

RooftopCoverIn the mystical world of Galilee City, Wax (Chou) literally lives on a rooftop. Along with the rest of the community, they spend their time singing and dancing with no worries to trouble them. Wax has friends in the form of mother-figure Jasmine (Xu Fan), A-Lang (A-Lang), Egg (Devon Song), and Tempura (Alan Ko). Tempura is the only one who holds a real job working for Rango (Wang Xueqi) who leads the City Housing Authority triad, collecting rent from the town’s merchants. Wax literally runs into the love of his life, Starling (Li Xin’ai), after he tries to save her from William (Darren Chiu), during the filming of a movie scene. Soon enough, Wax is swept into the movie life as a stunt double, while trying to woo Starling, who is under the watchful eye of her father Lao Li (Kenny Bee) and is using his daughter to make money to pay back some debt. Everything comes to a head as storylines collide in a weirdly violent finale.

Well Go USA is getting pretty consistent in their video department. The Rooftop tries to dazzle with its visual flair, but a cranked up contrast level washes out a lot of fine detail. Colors pop for the most part, but the contrast inconsistency makes most of them bloom and bleed. The 2.35:1 aspect ratio could have looked a lot better had they toned this issue down and involved at least one scene with a true level of black. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track on the other hand is exactly what you’d expect from a musical action film. Surrounds are fully active with dialogue crisp and clean. Musical numbers are typically full of deep LFE, and the city scape comes to life whenever they venture out from their rooftop home. At least the film sounds better than it looks. I’ve read a report of people having issues with their Blu-ray playback and wanted to report that I had absolutely none. The only special feature is the film’s trailer, even though this is the kind of film that they would have been completely welcomed to see some of the behind-the-scenes involved with shooting the dance numbers.

You’d expect a certain level of violence — even if mostly playful — in a film as wildly over-the-top as The Rooftop tries to be. Unfortunately, Chou takes a turn for the worst in the final act as he involves some heavy gunplay and a scene of attempted rape. Of course Wax swoops in to save the day, but the film is bookended with an unnecessary plot device where he tries way too hard to make his audience cry. As soon as a vital plot point unveils itself you can see where it’s headed a mile away. Chou does have a pretty good visual eye and stages some elaborate musical sequences, but the story is far too childish to make up for the last quarter of the runtime. And at 122 minutes, The Rooftop is way too long and a huge chore to sit through.

DVD Review: 'Silent Night, Bloody Night'

Article first published as DVD Review: 'Silent Night, Bloody Night' on Blogcritics.

It may come as a shock to some people, but fans of the horror genre know that there are a lot of Christmas-themed horror movies at our disposal. Typically these are the films I watch during November, after Halloween has come and gone, while Christmas is not quite here. There are a lot I still haven’t gotten around to watching yet, but movies like Black Christmas (both the 1974 original and the 2006 remake), Rare Exports, and Santa’s Slay typically make the list. As the holiday looms nearer then I move onto more outright Christmas-y outings like Gremlins and Silent Night, Deadly Night. It’s nice to run into a new one along the way, and now Film Chest is releasing the 1974 cult classic Silent Night, Bloody Night in a newly remastered DVD on December 10.

SilentNightBloodyNightCoverIt’s Christmas Eve 1950, and Wilfred Butler comes running out of his house set on fire. Dead and buried, the Butler house is believed to be cursed. In present day, Diane Adams (Mary Woronov) informs us, via voiceover, that she has returned to watch the Butler house be torn to the ground — even if it can never take the memories along with her from another fateful Christmas Eve in 1972. The Butler Estate is finally up for sale by the family’s lawyer Charlie Towman (John Carradine), who has come to offer the sale to the townsfolk for $50,000. Along for the ride is Charlie’s mistress Ingrid (Astrid Heeren). The two settle in for their night at the Butler house, but not before someone hacks them to pieces. Meanwhile, someone has escaped from the local sanitarium and a mysterious hitchhiker claiming to be Wilfred’s grandson Jeffrey (James Patterson) is roaming the streets.

Now, don’t let the DVD cover’s HD remastering claim fool you on the video quality. This is a tried and true B-movie grindhouse-quality print that looks like someone’s been spinning car tires over it. The right side of the screen is brighter than the rest of the picture and you’ll find the expected level of nicks, scratches, vertical/horizontal lines, and missing frames. Really all these imperfections add to the charm. The sound is the same, full of cracks, hiss, and pops. Played back on a 7.1 sound system made for an amusing viewing experience as the noise on the track played in full volume through both rear speakers surrounding me in white noise while everything else tried to make its way out of the center speaker. However, dialogue is surprisingly clean and you rarely miss any of the awfully good and cheesy lines.

In true horror fashion, everybody’s a suspect! The traditional helpings of red herring are on the loose as the townsfolk start dropping like flies and Diane gets into the fight of her life when she gets swept up into the murder spree. Silent Night, Bloody Night was produced by Troma co-founder Lloyd Kaufman, but don’t expect the same level of bloody titillation you’re used to. The one sex scene is completely implied and almost everyone is killed off screen. However, this does give director Theodore Gershuny some time to build actual tension instead of just showing lots of carnage. The cast provide a few better characterizations than these types of productions typically allow, and there are even plenty of POV shots from the killer. Silent Night, Bloody Night managed to gain notoriety after being featured on Elvira’s Movie Macabre and has gained a cult following over the years. There’s even a remake heading to DVD next year on February 18, if it holds up or betters the original, I may have two new additions to my growing number of Christmas horror choices.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Blu-ray 3D Review: 'Galactic Adventures Double Feature: 3D Sun/Mars 3D'

Article first published as Blu-ray 3D Review: 'Galactic Adventures Double Feature: 3D Sun/Mars 3D' on Blogcritics.

After having reviewed both Space Junk 3D and Gravity, there’s one place I never want to visit aside from the safety of my living room or theater: space. And the double feature Galactic Adventures: 3D Sun/Mars 3D isn’t doing it any favors either. Available on Blu-ray 3D December 3, the two NASA projects make their first adventure to the third dimension in the comfort of your own home. Both are filled to the brim with facts and stunning imagery, the likes of which you’ll never see outside of a space ship window. Clocking in at a brisk 43 minutes, you’ll never lose interest.

GalacticAdventures3D Sun takes us back to October 2006, as NASA launches two spacecraft to give us the first ever high-definition 3D imagery of the sun. NASA’s Madhulika Guhathakurta (STEREO Program Scientist), William Murtagh (Space Environment Center), and Richard Fisher (Director Heliophysics Division) all discuss the potential to predict storm patterns within two hours, and show us glowing auroras, the Earth’s Magnetosphere, and explain how while the sun may be 93 million miles from Earth, solar blasts and Coronal Mass Ejections can be just as dangerous to us on Earth as anything out in orbit.

Mars 3D is interesting because it’s the first time NASA’s 3D footage has been adapted for public viewing. Putting you literally on the surface of Mars, now we can view the landscapes of our closest planet — which, more than likely, was and still may be able to sustain life at some point. Thanks to the Mars rovers “Spirit” and “Opportunity” NASA finally had a firsthand glimpse of the surface — including the Columbia Hills — and was able to investigate the surface as fully as they could at the time.

I was worried about how both films would look being in 3D, and piled onto a 25GB Blu-ray disc. Considering they’ve included both the 3D and 2D versions of both features didn’t give me much hope either. Plus, 3D Sun is the only feature in 1080p; Mars 3D is presented in 720p with both in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. Thankfully, Image Entertainment continues to deliver top notch 3D experiences in spite of the small disc space.

There are some soft shots here and there and the 3D gets put to better use in 3D Sun; the first 10 minutes of Sun’s 20-minute runtime is in 2D. Halfway through you’re finally prompted to put on your 3D glasses to see the Mars footage in surprising detail for only 720p. Aside from some minor banding and aliasing Image continues to knock their 3D features out of the park. Both films feature 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks that are very front heavy considering there’s so much voiceover, but the rear speakers make the most of expanding the music with some deep LFE thrown in here and there for good measure.

There are no special features included, aside from trailers for the additional 3D Blu-rays: Ultimate Wave Tahiti 3D, Mummies – Secrets of the Pharaohs 3D, Dinosaurs Alive 3D, Dinosaurs – Giants of Patagonia 3D, Legends of Flight 3D, Wild Ocean 3D, Rescue 3D, Space Junk 3D, along with the feature you’re already watching. With how much information is packed into the features themselves, there really isn’t a whole lot you could add. Plus, the more they crammed onto the disc, the bigger toll it would have taken on the picture quality.

As they stand, both 3D Sun and Mars 3D are a fantastic addition to the growing number of educational 3D features coming out of the Image Entertainment pipeline. The government may have shut down NASA’s space program, but thankfully there are still plenty of these programs to keep us enlightened.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Blu-ray Review: 'Iron Man & Hulk: Heroes United'

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: 'Iron Man & Hulk: Heroes United' on Blogcritics.

With the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, it was only a matter of time before Marvel Entertainment began to make its way onto other formats. With the cost of motion pictures these days, I’m sure the home video front is almost an even more lucrative option. Now, Marvel is hitting Blu-ray with a full-length animated motion picture on December 3, with the mash up Iron Man & Hulk: Heroes United. While not living up to the likes of the cinematic endeavors, at least the feature is better than most video babysitters.

IronManHulkCoverIn this tale, we find Hulk (voiced by Fred Tatasciore) duking it out with Abomination (voiced by Robin Atkin Downes) who is working for HYDRA’s Dr. Fump (Downes again) and Dr. Cruler (voiced by Dee Bradley Baker). The two HYDRA doctors want to use Hulk and Abomination’s radiation to power their arc reactor, but in the process create an energy-devouring monster called ZZZax (Baker again). Now, Iron Man (voiced by Adrian Pasdar) and Hulk must band together — with the help of Jarvis (voiced by David Kaye) — to keep ZZZax from destroying the planet’s energy resources.

Disney is known for their home video transfers and this is no exception. Presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio on a 50GB Blu-ray disc, you’d expect nothing less than a first-rate transfer. Especially considering there’s not even 90 minutes of content, including the special features. Aside from a blink and you’ll miss it case of macroblocking in some dust-filled shots and the slightest bit of aliasing along Hulk’s skin in another, you have everything you’d expect out of a digitally-created feature.

Ironically, the DVD version included looks less realistic and far more cartoonish. If you’re buying the Blu-ray, stick to that disc. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is also everything you’d expect from a Disney/Marvel track; especially one featuring Iron Man and Hulk. The smashing action sequences assault from all speakers and the LFE will rattle the most secluded home theater. Keep volume levels in check or you may wind up having to place a few things back on the wall. Also included are French and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital audio tracks, along with English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles which are also available in the first featurette.

The special features may be rather scant, but are hugely enjoyable. First there’s an 11-minute featurette: “Marvel Team-Up with Ryan Penagos and Joe Q” featuring Penagos (Marvel’s Agent M — Executive Director, Marvel Digital Media Group who also oversees Marvel.com) and Joe Quesada (Chief Creative Officer, Marvel Entertainment). Filmed inside Meltdown Comics and Collectibles, the two offer up inside scoops about their rise within Marvel Comics including their own standoff upon first meeting. It’s more fun than you’d think to listen to two fanboys talk about how their dreams came true within Marvel. Also included are three “Marvel Mash-Ups” episodes including “SHIELD,” “Betty Ross,” and “Lil’ Hulk.” These are every bit as hilarious as the G.I. Joe PSA’s and a lot more episodes are available on YouTube.

IronManHulkPicIf the Marvel Cinematic Universe didn’t exist, these animated adventures may be the monetary investment Disney thinks they are. Seeing how Iron Man & Hulk: Heroes United is clearly aimed at younger viewers and fanboys, it’s a fine enough addition considering its first-class video and audio. The downside being that it feels like a Saturday morning cartoon stretched to feature length, making the $24.99 (as of this writing) price feel a bit steep considering that’s the same price as one of the theatrical releases. Featuring not-so-groundbreaking animation (as pretty as it may be) and only two special features that only amount to less than 20 minutes, I’d say that Marvel needs to step up their home video game on their next outing.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Movie Review: Disney’s ‘Frozen’

***** out of 5
108 minutes
Rated PG for some action and mild rude humor
Walt Disney Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: Disney’s ‘Frozen’ on Blogcritics.

Just when it seemed like Pixar Animation Studios couldn’t go wrong, along came Cars 2, Brave, and Monsters University. While Brave and MU were nowhere near the critical fiasco that Cars 2 was, the glory days sure seem long gone. Meanwhile, Disney Animation Studios had a glimmer of hope with Tangled. Then, after the release of the fantastic Wreck-It Ralph — and its diss of Best Animated Feature at this year’s Oscars — it appeared another Mouse House renaissance was coming. Frozen proves that Disney is on their way to taking back that crown.

FrozenPic1In the land of Arendelle, little princesses Elsa (voiced Eva Bella) and younger sister Anna (voiced by Livvy Stubenrauch), spend their time playing in the snow in the foyer to the castle. Elsa has a special power to create snow and ice. After Elsa strikes Anna in the head with her cryokinetic powers, the king and queen rush Anna to seek out the help of the nearby trolls. The Troll King (voiced by Ciarán Hinds) manages to heal Anna, but at the price of removing her memory of Elsa’s powers.

Now Elsa must keep this secret from Anna, but in the meantime, their parents perish at sea leaving Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel), who is of age, to take over the land of Arendelle as Queen. During Elsa’s coronation, Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell) meets Prince Hans (voiced by Santino Fontana), and asks for Anna’s hand in marriage. Elsa becomes infuriated by Anna’s willingness to leave, awakening her powers, casting an eternal freeze over the land. Elsa is cast out of the castle and vacates to the North Mountains. Now, Anna must find her sister to break the curse, with the help of Kristoff (voiced by Jonathan Groff), his trusty sidekick reindeer Sven, and a hilarious snowman named Olaf (voiced by Josh Gad).

If only Disney had the same courage as their new princesses. Maybe then people would know that Frozen harkens back to the days of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King. Yes, the glory days of Disney are definitely back. Even The Princess and the Frog, showed Disney had finally gotten their groove back, but it seems with every film they keep upping the ante. A new classic is born as director Chris Buck and co-writer/director Jennifer Lee (Wreck-It Ralph) breathe much needed life back into the Princess genre with their adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen.

FrozenPic2Did I mention the songs? Yes, Frozen is a musical, even more so than Tangled. The songs come courtesy of Robert and Kristen Anderson-Lopez (Tony Winners for Avenue Q and Book of Mormon), and will inevitably be stuck in your head — the way all classic Disney songs should. Idina Menzel and Kristen Bell sing their hearts out, with two showstoppers in “Let it Go” and “For the First Time in Forever (Reprise)” (which harkens to Menzel’s own Wicked). And anyone who knows Josh Gad’s theater background (Broadway’s Book of Mormon) won’t be surprised to find he has a hilarious number called “In the Summer” as the snowman belts his heart out about how much he’d love to see the season. Surprisingly, Jonathan Groff is only given one pseudo-musical number considering his singing ability, but this is the Elsa and Anna show and their characters are always center stage.

Leave it to Disney to unleash the film surely to win Best Animated Feature. This year has been somewhat of a snowball effect in the animation department with each film being better than the last; Frozen comes out on top as the year’s best. Packed with stunning animation, memorable characters, hilarious hijinks, memorable songs, some absolutely zany plot twists, and the prerequisite touch of heartwarming, Frozen is the true Disney classic we’ve been waiting for.